Diagnosing and Correcting Your Car’s Bad Smell

Diagnosing and Correcting Your Car’s Bad Smell

There’s nothing like that new car smell. It’s there for a short time with new cars, but as the vehicle becomes used and lived in, that new car smell goes away forever. From that point on, you are either attempting to keep the smell neutral or inspire a fragrant interior. What can you do when you encounter the problem of a bad smell inside the vehicle?

Step 1: Find the Source

There are a few common culprits that cause odors inside a car. You could jump straight into covering the smell, but if you can’t discover the source, you may be fighting a losing battle. It’s a good idea to explore whether any of these typical issues are the smell’s source. When investigating a mysterious odor, pay attention to when you smell it and think about what the smell most resembles. Work to find the source of the smell and eliminate it before making attempts at improving your car’s scent.

Is It Mechanical?

Does the odor smell like something is burning? If so, the first place to check for problems is the brake pads. You may notice this burning rubber smell after the vehicle has been in motion instead of only smelling it when you first jump into the car. If you can eliminate the brakes as the source, consider the clutch if you’re driving a manual transmission vehicle.

Is It Mechanical

To remedy this, pay attention to your driving habits. Be careful that you are not riding on your brakes. Prolonged pressure on the brake pads can be causing them to heat up, and the burning that you smell could be the burning of the brake pads. Not only is this a horrible smell, but it’s also not cheap to have your brake pads replaced prematurely.

The brakes and clutch are not the only possibilities of mechanical problems that can cause an odor. Take a look at this list of possible issues and compare the smell to the description to narrow down a potential problem. Not only will you be solving the question of the foul smell, but you could also save yourself from a bigger mechanical problem by catching it early.

Could There Be A Leak?

If there is a leak somewhere allowing water to get inside the vehicle, you will notice a musty smell. It will present immediately upon getting inside the car, and it may be more pronounced after a rain. In this case, feel around the window seals, the windshield, and check the floorboards for pooling water or a feeling of wetness that should not be present.

If this is the cause, you should consider taking your car in to be looked at by a professional. There’s not much you can do at home. You can cover the smell, but the moisture could eventually cause damage, rot, rust, or mold.

Is Something Rotting?

This smell is one that happens to almost everyone at one point or another. Perishable foods are carried in vehicles frequently. It could be that grocery items from last week’s grocery run fell out of the bag and under a seat, or maybe some remnants of fast-food from the meal taken on the run. If the car transports children, there seems always to be left behind foods or crumbs. These smells tend to present immediately, and you may notice an increasing strength as the rotting worsens. If it’s during the summer, you’ll know almost immediately that something is amiss.

Make an extensive search of the vehicle to identify where the smell is coming from. Check under seats and down along the edges of the seats. Don’t forget about places where pieces can be tucked away. Check the pockets on the back of the seats or in the cup holder compartments. The trunk area is another area where runaway foods can hide long enough to get stinky.

On rare occasions, the rotting smell could be coming from a dead animal. It is not uncommon for mice to find their way into a vehicle, especially if there are food bits or crumbs to feed on. It’s also true that they can sometimes die inside if they can’t find their way out. If you’ve investigated all areas of the vehicle, it may be time to consider that there could be a small animal decaying inside the seats or somewhere inside the dash.

Did Someone Get Sick?

Bodily fluids, unfortunately, do occasionally make their way into a vehicle. When someone gets sick inside a car or can’t hold it long enough to make it to the next bathroom, the odor can permeate the car for a while. These biological materials can be tough to neutralize since they will likely soak through the seats or into the carpet. The only good thing about this smell source is that you probably already knew where the smell was coming from. This may be another situation that might require professional services. You will likely end up needing to replace parts, or components will need, at least, a deep-cleaning shampoo service.

Is Someone Smoking?

This can be an obvious one, as cigarette and cigar smoke have very distinctive, unmistakable smells. So, the mystery may come with trying to figure out who or how the smell got inside the vehicle if you’re confident that none of the vehicle’s typical passengers are smokers.

First, explore the possibility that someone may be smoking in the car. Many people who smoke are unable to smell the lingering scent. Smokers mistakenly believe that smoking with the windows down will allow the odor to escape, but a non-smoker will easily nose it out. If you’re sure that’s not the case, ask if anyone rode in the car lately could’ve been exposed to smoke? Cigarette smoke can be invasive. Could someone have had a backpack, coat, or scarf exposed to second-hand smoke? Even human hair can carry the smell of smoke. If an item exposed to smoke is left in the small area on an enclosed car, the odor can permeate the entire interior. Once it’s made its way into the vehicle’s upholstery, it can be hard to get rid of.

Step 2: Treat the Smell

If there is a problem with the vehicle related to a mechanical issue or a leak, you will need to repair those issues. If someone is introducing cigarette smoke into the car, prevent future exposure. And, if some food or dead animal is rotting in the vehicle, find and remove it.

Once the source of the odor has been remedied, you can begin to counteract the bad smell. You’re not yet ready to add a preferred fragrance until you’ve worked to neutralize the foul odor. You may shampoo the carpets or upholstery. In a worst-case scenario, you may need to replacement parts of the vehicle.

There’s not much you can do at home. You can cover the smell, but the moisture could eventually cause damage, rot, rust, or mold. Sometimes car ac can also be smelly due to bad air compressors. So if you don’t know how does car ac works, drive to your local shop and replace that smelly compressor.

Step 3: Add A Nice Smell

Having a bad smell inside a car is that the brain often has a hard time forgetting the smell even after the odor is gone. It’s as if the smell can get stuck in the nose. A great way to counteract that memory of a bad smell is to add a new, better fragrance. Even if the fresh scent is temporary, it can help get the sour smell out of the brain.

There are a couple of ways to introduce a pleasant smell into the vehicle. The first is through a product that takes advantage of the vents. Depending on the season, either heat or air conditioning will be blowing through the vents. If you can place a pleasant smell at the opening, the forced air will blow past the product at the vent opening and scent the interior. You can even opt for an essential oil diffuser when adding in a nice fragrance.

Add the fragrance to the carpet or upholstery. These car components are magnets for whatever aromas they are in contact with. Just as they held on to bad smells, they can be a great place to infuse with good scents as well. There are powders, sprays, and shampoos available to add a nice smell inside the car.

Go with a traditional hanging air freshener. Think back to the days when every vehicle had a cardboard pine tree hanging off the rearview mirror. Almost any preferred scent can be found on a cardboard cutout and hung inside the car. These may be quite strong at first, so you may want to let them air out a bit before placing them inside the vehicle.

Finally, some products can be sprayed inside the vehicle, which will scent the air and tend to be light enough to linger for a time and then disperse. This might be an excellent option for the driver who enjoys variety to easily or frequently change the fragrance.

Enjoy the Ride

Hopefully, these tips will help you to identify what may be causing an unpleasant smell inside the vehicle and offer some steps to neutralize and eliminate the odor. While you can’t ever get that new car smell back, you can freshen the air in the vehicle with various scents. Some air fresheners offer the smell of a new car. So, once you get rid of the source of any bad smells, maybe you can get that new car smell back.


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